Florida confirms it was behind California migrant flights

The migrants “indicated they wanted to go to California,” the state said in a statement.
Sacramento County public information officer Kim Nava speaks to the media at Sacramento Executive Airport on Monday, June 5, 2023, after about a group of 20 migrants were flown to the airport earlier in the day. The migrants were transported to a religious facility in the area.
Sacramento County public information officer Kim Nava speaks to the media at Sacramento Executive Airport on Monday, June 5, 2023, after about a group of 20 migrants were flown to the airport earlier in the day. The migrants were transported to a religious facility in the area. [ PAUL KITAGAKI JR. | The Sacramento Bee ]
Published June 6, 2023|Updated June 6, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — Four days ago, 16 South American asylum seekers were flown on a private plane from Texas to California. When they landed, most did not know where they were. But the people who arranged their transportation put them on a bus and dropped them off outside a Catholic church in Sacramento.

They rang the doorbell of the church and told the group of migrants they would be back.

But they never returned.

The migrants recounted their experience to Sacramento faith leaders, who have been providing assistance to them, and California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who is investigating whether there was criminal or civil wrongdoing in how the migrants were relocated by the state of Florida and a contractor of its state-funded program.

“We don’t have our arms around all the facts yet, but we are looking at criminal and civil liability, misdemeanors and felonies on the criminal side,” Bonta said in an interview with the Times/Herald on Tuesday. “I will say there’s not a slam dunk, though at this time it might develop into that.”

At 5 p.m. EDT Tuesday, Florida officials sent a statement to the Times/Herald defending Gov. Ron DeSantis’ migrant relocation program. It included a link to an unsourced video that claims to show footage and still images of migrants at different locations. The statement said it showed that “through verbal and written consent, these volunteers indicated they wanted to go to California.”

The statement does not say when or where the videos and photos were taken, who took them or who put together the entire video. And it does not identify the people who speak or whose faces are shown.

Bonta, however, said the migrants were approached outside a migrant center in El Paso, Texas and were told in “broken Spanish” to board a plane under the false promise of jobs and assistance. They were given documents in English and Spanish, but not all of them understood where they were going until they landed in Sacramento, and not all signed.

The documents indicated the travel arrangements were on behalf of Florida and its contractor, Vertol Systems, Bonta said.

“They’re going to argue that this was voluntary and consensual, but the entire set of facts, including what they were represented, verbally, what they were told, what they were enticed with and promised, that’s all going to be part of the factual scenario,” Bonta said. “But they’re going to want this document to be their liability shield.”

Vertol Systems is the same company that last September sent 49 asylum seekers, most of them Venezuelans, from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts — the first iteration of Florida’s program.

A Texas sheriff’s office has recommended criminal charges following an investigation into the handling of those flights. The case filed included both felony and misdemeanor charges of unlawful restraint, according to the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office.

California is looking into potential false imprisonment crimes and civil action based on claims that the migrants were deceived, misled and lied to by those who arranged their travels, Bonta said. The investigation, he added, is into “everyone involved in the conduct,” including Florida state employees, Vertol Systems and any of its employees and subcontractors.

The Division of Emergency Management, which runs the program, took credit for flying the migrants to California for the first time on Tuesday. The first flight arrived on Friday. A second flight carrying about 20 migrants, all of whom had the same documents tying their transportation to Florida, landed in Sacramento Monday, a spokesperson for the California Attorney General’s Office told the Times/Herald.

DeSantis has yet to publicly comment on the flights.

Bonta said he had not been in touch with anyone in Florida or Vertol Systems as of Tuesday morning.

Haircuts, cellphones and other support

California officials and community faith leaders would not be surprised if more flights with migrants arrive, though they have not been given any notice.

So far, the community has provided the migrants with housing, clothing, cell phones, haircuts and legal services.

“We are letting them kind of dictate what they believe their needs are,” Cecilia Flores, a spokesperson for Sacramento ACT, said at a news conference in Sacramento on Tuesday morning. “Our approach is really enabling them to feel once again empowered.”

Many of the migrants are still figuring out their destination. A few have been picked up in Sacramento by loved ones. Others remain in Sacramento, and have indicated a desire to help out in the community, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg said during the news conference.

But most of them, Flores said, simply wanted to reach the United States and did not have a specific destination in mind.

The migrants are free to travel throughout the United States once they are released from federal custody, vetted by the Department of Homeland Security and assigned a hearing date for processing.

“I had the opportunity last night to meet several of our asylum seekers and what struck me was not only their friendly nature after they had gone through such a journey. More than anything else, while they were grateful for our community’s help and support, they weren’t asking for anything,” Steinberg said.

If more come, the city and county will be prepared, Steinberg added

“There is no other answer than to say yes, and you best believe we can handle it,” he said.